WASHINGTON -- The House approved legislation Thursday aimed at ensuring the national "do-not-call" list goes into effect as scheduled next week so consumers can block many unwanted telemarketing sales pitches.
The House voted 412-8 after less than hour of debate. Lawmakers from both parties uniformly blasted a decision by U.S. District Judge Lee R. West, who ruled Tuesday that the Federal Trade Commission lacked authority to create and operate the registry.
"The judge in this case is dead wrong and I'm sure his decision will in turn be overturned," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "We should probably call the bill 'This Time We Really Mean It Act' to cure any myopia in the judicial branch. The bill leaves no doubt as to the intent of Congress."
The bill says the FTC may operate the list, which was approved by Congress last year and is scheduled to take effect Wednesday. The Senate was expected to pass similar legislation Thursday.
If the bill passes both chambers and is signed into law by President Bush, that does not automatically nullify the court order. West, the Oklahoma City judge must still dismiss the case brought by telemarketers in order for the list to move ahead.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not firmly commit Bush to signing legislation on the registry, but he said the administration disagrees with the ruling and supports the efforts in Congress to keep the do-not-call list on schedule.
The bills were hastily drafted Wednesday. The speed with which Congress acted underscored the popularity of the list, which after less than four months already has nearly 51 million numbers.
"This legislation got to the House floor faster than a consumer can hang up on a telemarketer at dinnertime," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
The FTC expects the list to block 80 percent of telemarketing calls. Exemptions include calls from charities, pollsters and on behalf of politicians.
The FTC's rules require telemarketers to check the list every three months to see who doesn't want to be called. Those who call listed people could be fined up to $11,000 for each violation. Consumers would file complaints to an automated phone or online system.
The FTC is moving ahead with the list despite the court ruling and is encouraging consumers to continue signing up.
"One way or another we believe this District Court decision will not stand in the way," said Eileen Harrington, the FTC's director of marketing practices. The FTC has asked the judge to delay the decision while it files an appeal.
Telemarketers say the list would devastate their industry and lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. The Direct Marketing Association, one of the groups that challenged the registry, said it hadn't decided whether its members would stop calling people on the list starting next Wednesday.
West ruled late Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission, not the FTC, has the authority to oversee a national do-not-call registry.
West said recently adopted rules that allowed the FTC to create such a list were invalid. But he did not issue an order directing the FTC to stop the list.
During the House debate, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., held up a piece of paper he said had the judge's phone number written on it and jokingly threatened to distribute it.
That idea had already occurred to angry consumers, who posted the judge's office and home telephone numbers on Web sites after the ruling and encouraged people to call and complain.
Since the FTC opened the do-not-call list for registration in June, people have submitted 31.1 million phone numbers at the Web site www.donotcall.gov and 10.9 million by calling toll-free at 1-888-382-1222. An additional 8.6 million numbers were transferred from existing state lists.
There are about 166 million residential phone numbers in the United States and an additional 150 million cell phone numbers.
On the Net:
National Do Not Call Registry: http://www.donotcall.gov